In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes the main character Phaedrus as being caught in a dilemma. In discussing the idea of Quality which Phaedrus had been developing, the English Department at the college where he taught challenged him, “Does this undefined ‘quality’ of yours exist in the things we observe? Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?” (p.223) Phaedrus quickly realized that to accept either choice was to lose the challenge. If Quality was assumed to exist in the object but could not be scientifically measured, then it was nonsense. And if Quality was assumed to be subjective, then it was “just a fancy name for whatever you like.” (p.223) Neither choice was acceptable. What was he to do?
Eventually, he realized that this dilemma related to the mind-matter conundrum that had been frustrating philosophers for ages. And so he solved the problem neatly by rejecting both horns of the dilemma: “Quality is not objective. It doesn’t reside in the material world. Quality is not subjective. It doesn’t reside merely in the mind. Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two.” (p.231)
The 7th graders were recently caught in a similar, if less philosophical, dilemma. When the day off for Day of Awareness (morning workshops on diversity) and Winter Thaw (fun afternoon trips off campus) was rescheduled for January 27, a huge conflict arose. January 27 was the day toward which they had been working for months, collaborating with partners at The Children’s Storefront school in Harlem, to hold a joint debate via Skype. Steve Bergen, the collaborating teacher at Storefront, had invited the Head of School and the entire upper school to attend the debate in their assembly room. On the one horn of this dilemma, the 7th graders had a major commitment to another school that couldn’t be rescheduled. On the other, they had a sincere desire not to be left out of one of the three big days off from classes during the school year. What to do?
Our in-class discussion was caught in a vicious (if mostly polite) circle, when one of the 7th graders had a brainstorm. She chose an approach similar to that employed by Phaedrus – you want me to choose which large group of people to disappoint? I reject both horns of that dilemma. Why can’t we find another way? For example… why couldn’t we take videos of our parts of the debate and share them with Storefront, enabling them to hold the debate as planned with our participation even as, in real life, we would be participating in Thaw while they were debating?
The class quickly united behind that idea, and I phoned Steve to run it past him. Over the next three days, by phone and email, we developed the idea in greater detail, and by Sunday afternoon Steve and I agreed that, in his words, “Sometimes Plan B is even better than Plan A.”
This is exactly the kind of creative, out-of-the-box thinking so many people say they want our nation’s students to be able to develop. I believe it is a natural outgrowth of the democratic approach to learning that we take in Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School. When students become used to having to find creative ways to solve problems, negotiate differences of opinion, and resolve dilemmas, and when they are given the opportunity to think about a problem, the chances of their collective power finding a solution are greatly enhanced.
Moments like this, I really love my job.
- Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean